Best VPN Services of 2021

The best VPN services with the most features, perks, and protection.

One of the best ways to secure everything you do online is by using a VPN service provider (or virtual private network).

A VPN protects your Internet connection by encrypting all of the data on the fly, no matter which sites you visit or files you download. A VPN is an essential tool that runs on your laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet, or even your router.

We’ve found more than 40 VPN companies, but only a handful of clients rise above the rest. We’ve created this comprehensive guide and highlights these 10 powerful VPN apps to help you pick the one that works best for your daily life.

Best VPN services price comparison
BrandPriceNumber of VPN serversSimultaneous connectionsDetails
ExpressVPN$12.95/mo.3,000+Up to 5View Plans
NordVPN$11.95/mo.5,400Up to 6View Plans
Hotspot Shield$12.99/mo.3,200+Up to 5View Plans
CyberGhost$12.99/mo.6,600Up to 7View Plans
TunnelBear$9.99/mo.1,500+Up to 5View Plans
Surfshark$12.95/mo. 3,200+UnlimitedView Plans
Private Internet Access$11.95/mo.23,652Up to 10View Plans
Norton Secure VPN$7.99/mo.1,500+Up to 5View Plans
UltrasurfFreeUnknownUnlimitedView Plans
IPVanish$9.99/mo.1,600+Up to 10View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.


Get Surfshark VPN service free for 3 months

Surfshark is one of our top 10 VPN services, and now you can grab it at a discounted price. Surfshark’s Black Friday special secures your internet for free for three months, then you pay only $2.49 a month for 24 months after that. That’s 83% off Surfshark’s original price. Not bad.

Get the Surfshark Black Friday Deal & Save Now

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What about a free VPN service provider?
It’s hard to find a good free VPN service. The whole point of using VPN software is to protect your identity and free VPN service providers tend to be a little sketchy. If you’re unsure, we recommend trying out a VPN free trial of one of the more reputable VPN providers.

ExpressVPN: Editor’s Choice

Express VPN Logo

ExpressVPN’s interface and powerful features make it one of the best VPNs out there.

There’s no question ExpressVPN leads the VPN market. It consistently ranks high with users and is one of the most popular options by far. What really stands out is the interface, website information, and branding. It’s a professional VPN that looks appealing and operates efficiently. Top features also include a high number of servers for connecting and extra installers for smart televisions and routers.

ExpressVPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$12.95/mo.3,000+94Up to 5View Plans

Data effective 8/30/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

ExpressVPN service standout features:

  • High number of countries and servers
  • Extra installers for games and smart televisions
  • Clean interface that’s easy to use

ExpressVPN is easily a top pick because of the interface and powerful features. It has a high number of servers and countries available and the ExpressVPN website tends to provide more information about using, installing, and supporting the VPN.

But it’s not quite as affordable as some of its competitors. A few of the more popular VPN clients cost around $10 or $11 per month whereas ExpressVPN costs about $13 per month. ExpressVPN does restrict how many devices you can use, unlike IPVanish and Surfshark.

ExpressVPN advanced features:

Where ExpressVPN really thrives for everyday users is when it comes to the robust and clean interface. Some of the VPN apps you’ll find are from smaller companies without the ability to build a robust interface for the app, the Windows client or for the Mac. ExpressVPN has excellent branding and UI design so you won’t have to hunt around in obscure settings with cryptic and confusing descriptions. The app is almost fun to use because it’s so easy.

This VPN app is also well-known because it works on so many devices. We tested it on a smart television, multiple phones (including both iPhone and Android modesl), and even on a router and a game console. That flexibility means you won’t have to surf without protection on any of the gadgets you own.

It gets even better. ExpressVPN supports a unique Network Lock kill switch, which automatically disables your entire online connection for all traffic if the VPN isn’t working correctly. It means if you are downloading files or playing a game, the connection will stop working until the VPN protection is restored.

ExpressVPN uses industry leading encryption as well, known as AES-256. Most security experts say this is the best form of protection for anyone who cares about staying safe online and protecting your connection from hackers, government agencies, or other snoopers.

Read more about ExpressVPN in our ExpressVPN Review



NordVPN has excellent instructions and helpful tips that make it easy to use.

NordVPN is another five-star VPN worth considering. We rated it so high because of the professional interface (most features are very easy to find), the exceptional website with extra tips and instructions, a reliable and consistent connection to a wide assortment of servers, and the fact that it is reasonably priced for the value and quality.

NordVPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$11.95/mo5,40059Up to 6View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

NordVPN service standout features:

  • Easy to use on a PC
  • Offers CyberSec feature to block malware websites
  • Zero traffic logs

NordVPN is a top-notch VPN because of the interface. You won’t have any trouble finding features and it has a commercial and well-designed look. An added feature called CyberSec can block malware for sites you visit. Like many VPN apps, NordVPN has a zero logs policy about storing your private data.

Like ExpressVPN, you will pay a little more for the best VPN options on the market. There are lesser VPN clients that are also cheaper, but they don’t have the same feature set or professional look and feel. Another ding with NordVPN is that it does limit how many devices you can use with one account—that’s not true with IPVanish or Surfshark.

NordVPN service advanced features:

Like the ExpressVPN app, the client for NordVPN is robust and powerful. It’s not created by a lone individual in a basement but an entire company that runs servers worldwide. Also similar to ExpressVPN, this client runs on just about everything under the sun, including both iOS and Android phones, smart televisions running Android TV, tablets and laptops, and even in your browser using encrypted proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox.

The really impressive feature has to do with the total number of servers available around the world, now totaling about 5,400 (up from around 5,000 when we first reviewed the app and covered it in this guide in August of 2020). That’s some serious uptick.

As for speed, in our testing, we didn’t notice as much of a hit when you add the security encryption. NordVPN calls this out as a feature on their website, although it’s hard to test. It depends on what you are downloading and from where, using which device. That said, we did find the slowdowns to be all but unnoticeable.

And then there’s this: With NordVPN, you can actually change your IP address twice for each session, which means websites can’t trace you back to your original IP address. We haven’t seen that feature listed with other VPN clients. It’s like a double-blind, masking who you really are.

Read more about NordVPN in our NordVPN Review

Hotspot Shield VPN

Hotspot Shield logo

Hotspot Shield gives you a ton of servers for a low price.

Hotspot Shield is a powerful and reliable VPN. Like many of the best VPN apps in this round-up, the company says they do not maintain logs for your Internet activity. Hotspot Shield also provides access to the 1Password password manager for free.

Hotspot Shield VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$12.99/mo.3,200+82Up to 5View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Hotspot Shield VPN service standout features:

  • No browsing activity logs
  • Free password manager
  • Five connections at a low price

The professional interface is a major selling point here. Hotspot Shield looks well-designed and features are easy to find and use. Another major perk is that this is an affordable VPN at $12.99 per month (although you have to pay by the year). This VPN is available as a free version that restricts how much bandwidth you can use.

Hotspot Shield still restricts you to five devices, which is common… for now. But a trend is emerging with VPN clients where they’re starting to allow unlimited device connections. That’s currently true with Surfshark and IPVanish, and we expect more of these apps to follow suit. So far, Hotspot Shield has not.

Hotspot Shield VPN advanced features:

Hotspot Shield makes a big fuss about their speed, and we found this VPN client to be plenty fast. Every VPN tends to cause some slowdowns to occur. Also, it’s a bit relative to what you are downloading and from where. That said, it is speedy.

The encryption is also well-known for being robust. Hotspot Shield claims their VPN can block 57 million malware and phishing scam sites. (Those sites trick you into thinking you are on a legit site, then proceed to steal your credit card info and other personal data.) That’s a big plus.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the interface and branding. Everything is clear and almost elegant in the app and on the company website. In our tests, Hotspot Shield tended to be one of the easiest to use, although a few of the most advanced features like a being able to change your IP address tiwce per session are missing. In general, settings were easy to find.

There’s even a 45-day money-back deal. While that’s not technically an advanced feature, it might help advanced users test out this VPN app, see if it does everything they need, and then decide if it is still worth subscribing.

Read more about Hotspot Shield VPN in our Hotspot Shield VPN Review

CyberGhost VPN

CyberGhost logo

CyberGhost offers the most VPN servers.

We really like CyberGhost, mostly because it is technically superior when it comes to specs alone. This VPN provides over 6,000 servers for your connection, the most we’ve seen. There’s a server available for almost any purpose. It’s also the fastest VPN we’ve tested and is great for gamers.

CyberGhost VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$12.99/mo. 6,60089Up to 7View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

CyberGhost VPN service standout features:

  • Access on up to seven devices
  • Includes a massive number of servers
  • Has a low-cost 18-month payment option

The high number of servers is the best feature here. Added to that is the number of devices you can use from one account. Most of the top picks for VPN allow five or six, but CyberGhost lets you connect from up to seven gadgets. A nice feature related to pricing is that you can sign-up for an 18-month pricing plan at a lower average monthly cost. CyberGhost is fast, reliable, and secure for most users.

The main complaint we have is the interface because it lacks the polish of premium VPN like ExpressVPN or NordVPN. It’s also priced a bit higher than most VPN apps. We also found that both ExpressVPN and NordVPN provide better website info and install instructions.

CyberGhost VPN service advanced features:

Most advanced users will find one spec the most appealing when it comes to CyberGhost. Namely, that you can connect to one of over 6,600 servers worldwide. That’s up about 600 more servers from when we first tested the app in August of 2020. No matter where you travel, you can likely get a good connection.

CyberGhost offers a client for just about every device you can think of (and even a few you can’t). It works on iOS and Android phones, laptops running Windows or MacOS, and even has a Linux client available (if you are a really advanced user).

Like ExpressVPN, you will find that CyberGhost offers a kill switch. It’s automated so if the VPN fails, CyberGhost will disable all traffic until the security protection is restored. That gives you peace of mind for downloads, gaming, or anything else you do online.

One last advanced feature to mention. In our tests, the claim of using a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu in places where that might not work is legit. It means, if you travel, you can likely still keep up on the latest shows and movies.

Read more about CyberGhost VPN CyberGhost VPN Review

TunnelBear VPN


TunnelBear’s ‘GhostBear’ hides the fact you’re using a VPN.

TunnelBear is the quirky, fun VPN of the pack. Their website features a bear as a mascot and we kept finding jokes and puns about the product (like “the bear essentials”). The interface is remarkably clear, professional, and intuitive.

TunnelBear VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$9.99/mo.1,500+26Up to 5View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

TunnelBear VPN service standout features:

  • Playful interface makes it fun to use
  • GhostBear looks like a normal connection
  • Free ad blocker doesn’t even require an account

One super helpful feature is called GhostBear, which can trick websites into thinking you are not even using a VPN. This VPN includes a free ad blocker as well—in fact, you can download it without even signing up for an account.

Despite the professional interface and the free ad blocker, the one glaring discovery with TunnelBear is that it lacks some technical prowess. For example, many VPN clients offer servers in 50 or 60 countries worldwide or more; TunnelBear only works in 26 countries.

TunnelBear VPN service advanced features:

For advanced features, TunnelBear tends to be a bit more generic in its approach. There are precious few advanced settings for tweaking which encrpytion standard you can use, and the app doesn’t run directly on game consoles or smart televisions.

That said, the company does provide an app for iOS, Android, Windows, and the Mac plus an extra ad blocker that runs in your browser. A feature called VigilantBear will block all traffic if the VPN goes down, which protects you from intrusion and compromise.

The GhostBear feature is also unique. It makes your ISP think you are not even using a VPN, which helps protect you from tracking and (more specifically) being served ads. TunnelBear uses a whimsical icon for each of these features to make them seem more fun.

TunnelBear claims to be “the only VPN in the world to publish regular, independent security audits.” You can read more about it here.

Read more about TunnelBear VPN in our TunnelBear VPN Review

Surfshark VPN

Surfshark logo

Surfshark lets you connect an unlimited number of devices through its VPN.

The one stand-out feature with Surfshark is that you are not limited in how many gadgets you can use with one account. There’s a fun vibe with the interface and some technical features like the ability to choose which sites don’t use the VPN.

Surfshark VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$12.95/mo. 3,200+65UnlimitedView Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Surfshark VPN service standout features:

  • Unlimited number of devices
  • Comes with a free ad blocker
  • Allows bypass select sites with your VPN

Most VPN clients only allow you to connect with about five gadgets, so one or two smartphones and tablets plus a laptop. Surfshark removes this limitation. It’s pricing is right in line with our top picks and it includes a free ad blocker.

The biggest ding against using Surfshark is that it has some technical challenges. CyberGhost, for example, has far more servers available. Another issue is the website. We prefer the extensive info and tips available through ExpressVPN, but Surfshark doesn’t quite have the same level of detail or install instructions.

Surfshark VPN service advanced features:

Surfshark has increased its number of servers since we last tested the app in August of 2020. They now have over 3,200 servers compared to our finding back then with only about 1,700. They have servers in over 65 countries as well.

There’s a laundry list of extra features, which you may not consider “advanced” per se but are still noteworthy. The CleanWeb ad blocker is included as part of your subscription. A big surprise is that you can use as many devices as you want, since it is unlimited. Most VPN apps have a set limit of about 5 devices.

You can create a whitelist of approved apps and sites, which helps you keep track of approved content and download locations, websites, and apps that are safe to use. Camouflage Mode tricks an ISP into thinking you are not using a VPN. This helps you avoid detection. You can also switch your security protocol from IKEv2/IPsec to OpenVPN for more flexibility and to test any speed slowdowns.

The Surfshark VPN is not as robust as ExpressVPN or NordVPN in terms of the interface, but it is clearly a powerful and superior option. One bonus is that, if you sign-up for two years, you can claim three months of usage for free.

Read more about Surfshark VPN in our Surfshark VPN Review

Private Internet Access VPN

Private Internet Access Logo

Private Internet Access lets you pay for your service using gift cards.

We like that Private Internet Access keeps its pricing below $10. (Many of our top picks tend to cost about $11 or $12 per month.) The interfaces for all of our top picks are professional, clear, and easy to use, which helps you find all of the technical features, and Private Internet Access fits right in in that regard.

Private Internet Access VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$11.95/mo.23,652+77Up to 10View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Private Internet Access VPN service standout features:

  • Includes access on up to 10 devices
  • Can pay for your plan with gift cards from Starbucks or Target
  • High number of servers

With Private Internet Access, you can access up to 10 devices, which is not quite as much as Surfshark’s unlimited access, but it’s still about twice the normal number. With that many devices, you can install the VPN on multiple phones and tablets as well as a router and smart television.

Private Internet Access also has an unusual feature that lets you pay through the app using a gift card from Starbucks, Target, and other locations. That means you don’t have to reveal your identity or share a credit card number. And, Private Internet Access lets you connect to one of over 23,652 servers.

Some of the most popular VPN clients like ExpressVPN and NordVPN offer much better website info like install instructions and tips. While the Private Internet Access interface is still useful and clear, it lacks the professional look of the top picks.

Private Internet Access VPN service advanced features:

Advanced users will love the access to 23,652 servers worldwide, which is stunningly high. That’s thousands and thousand more than competing VPN apps which usually provide about around 3,000 to 5,000 servers. It means you can always trust there is a connection readily available no matter where you go.

The VPN apps includes an ad blocker to keep you safe form malware and other scams. When you visit a site that is dangerous because of data compromise issues, the VPN won’t let you through to protect your connection (and possibly your credit card information and personal data).

The interface in the app and the website for this VPN app are easy to use, although we prefer the professional look of ExpressVPN. We didn’t have any trouble locating features when we did our full review, and the settings and options were clear and obvious.

Read more about Private Internet Access VPN in our Private Internet Access VPN Review

Norton Secure VPN

Norton Secure VPN Logo

Norton is a trusted name in software security and makes a pretty good VPN too.

Norton, one of the most trusted names in software security, is an upstart challenger in the VPN market. That’s because the field is already dominated by ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish, and other well-known apps that are easier to find in app stores. That said, Norton is an established brand and makes some of the best security software around.

Norton Secure VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$7.99/mo.1,500+29Up to 5View Plans

Data effective 8/30/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Norton Secure VPN service standout features:

  • Innovative ad blocker and tracker
  • Flexible pricing plan
  • Unusual 60-day money-back guarantee

Norton Secure VPN is known as a well-designed product that fits within the security suite of Norton in general. You’ll be in good hands. The app includes an ad blocker and there’s a unique 60-day money-back guarantee. This app is unusual in that you can select a payment plan based on how many devices you want to secure (only one device, five devices, or 10).

Where things get a little more dicey is in the actual specifications. CyberGhost, NordVPN, and several others offer far more servers to connect to than Norton. And, once again, the Norton Secure VPN website doesn’t offer nearly as much instructional material or tips as the big names.

Norton Secure VPN service advanced features:

Cutting right to the chase, Norton Secure VPN is the app you want if you trust the Norton brand and want to adjust your expectations a little. At least in our testing and by analyzing the website, there just aren’t as many advanced features.

However, what you can do is select a pricing plan that meets your needs. You can pick a plan that only protects one device, and that might be all you need. There’s also a plan for protecting 5 devices or 10 devices.

The VPN does include an ad blocker, which prevents advertisers from tracking what you do online and sending you ads, which is a sure sign you are not browsing privately. In our tests, the VPN ran smoothly and didn’t have a major impact on our download speed.

Read more about Norton Secure VPN in our Norton Secure VPN Review

Ultrasurf VPN

UltraSurf Logo

Ultrasurf is the one free VPN we think is worth the look.

Ultrasurf is unique among all VPN clients. It’s an entirely free VPN provider to download and use. The features are limited—it doesn’t have the pizzazz of VPN apps like ExpressVPN or NordVPN. However, it’s also highly secure because you do not even need to register for an account or reveal anything about your identity. And, a good free VPN app is exactly that. A free VPN app. It’s ideal for those who want to try out a VPN and see if they want to move up to a paid version with more features.

Ultrasurf VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
FreeUnknownUnknownUnknownView Plans

Data effective 8/30/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

Ultrasurf VPN service standout features:

  • Download is free and easy to use
  • No registration required for users
  • Obscures your IP address in seconds

If you’re looking for the cheapest VPN, totally free to use is hard to beat. If you’re not sure if you’ll benefit from a VPN or want to experiment on a specific device first, try Ultrasurf. This app doesn’t force you to register, add a credit card, or even reveal your location.

Many of the best VPN clients offer exceptional features such as the ability to select a server from thousands of options, extra security protocols to try, and also offer a professional interface. Ultrasurf can’t touch any of those pro features.

Ultrasurf VPN service advanced features:

With Ultrasurf, you might wonder if there are advanced features. The app is free and protects your connection with encryption, but anything beyond that (such as selecting alternative security protocols) will be slim.

The good news is that, because this VPN app is free, you can run it on every device you own. It might be a laptop, multiple smartphones (iOS or Android), every laptop you use all day, desktop computers, and everything in between.

Read more about Ultrasurf VPN in our Ultrasurf VPN Review

IPVanish VPN

I P Vanish Logo

Zero logs means IPVanish doesn’t track your online activity.

Another top pick in a crowded field of VPN clients, IPVanish stands out mostly for its low price—only $10 per month which is a hair more affordable than most of the top picks. Like many of the best VPN clients, IPVanish also states unequivocally that they do not maintain any server logs so your internet activity is safe.

Private Internet Access VPN price and features
Monthly priceNumber of serversNumber of countriesSimultaneous connectionsLearn more
$9.99/mo.1,600+75+10View Plans

Data effective 12/21/2020. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.

IPVanish VPN service standout features:

  • Zero traffic logs
  • Unlimited bandwidth
  • Supports up to 10 devices

IPVanish stands out because it offers lower-than-normal prices, has a zero-logs policy, and does not cap your bandwidth speed.

Keep in mind, however, that IPVanish is not as well-known as other major VPN providers, and the company website is a bit more limited in terms of helpful tips and tricks, install instructions, and support than some clients. IPVanish is a pretty solid VPN, but you may be on your own if you have to troubleshoot anything.

IPVanish VPN service advanced features:

IPVanish is a solid VPN app that may meet your needs, although it is a little light on advanced features. Advanced users might like the price, though, which is a bit cheaper than most of the top VPN clients out there, such as ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

It’s not a feature of the VPN exactly, but the one plus with IPVanish is you can combine the app with storage for a lower overall cost. Storage options start at only $1 more per month beyond the normal VPN subscription price. You enjoy 500GB of storage that is secure and private.

Read more about IPVanish VPN in our IPVanish VPN Review

How we picked the top VPN services

Evaluating a VPN involves testing the actual product and streaming or downloading files. It also means connecting to several servers and in multiple countries to test the speed and reliability.

We scoured the features for the most popular VPN apps, tested each one in multiple ways by downloading files, streaming, and visiting websites, examined the prices, and selected those that will meet the needs of discerning Internet users.

We evaluated the pricing, features, interface, website, and much more to make sure we’re seeing the big picture and asked ourselves: Is this a VPN worth recommending?

It was not easy. These top picks also offer something “extra,” such as a clean and useful interface or extra pricing plans where you can pay for the entire year instead of month-to-month.

We’ve highlighted the most important features for each VPN client to make sure the ones that stick out the most will meet your needs.

What is a VPN? Why do you need one

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are affordable, legal, and a great way to keep your internet activity (mostly) away from prying eyes.

Even if you don’t use the public Wi-Fi at Starbucks or the library, you’re probably already aware that almost everything you do online is tracked.

Yup, your internet service provider (ISP)1 or any company that makes money by marketing ads to you is probably logging everything you do online right now. And possibly hackers too.

We don’t mean to freak you out. But we want to stress that it’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy. Even if you’re not using public Wi-Fi.

The good news is, a virtual private network (VPN) is an easy—and often cheap—way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.

It’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy, even if you’re not on public Wi-Fi. And having a VPN is an easy way to add an extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.

What is a VPN?

In a nutshell, a VPN is software that builds an encrypted connection from your computer to a VPN server, and then to your ISP, which sends you to the website you want to visit. This is sometimes called the VPN tunnel, and it creates a secure connection to the website. Now prying eyes can’t watch what you do online—even if you’re shopping for creepy green vegetables that shout yodel-ay-ee-hoo!. (We assume it’s a white elephant gift, right?)

You can think of a VPN like a goalie protecting its turf—in this case, your computer and private data.

When another player tries to track your internet activity or gain access to your info, the VPN blocks it. The only ones who get to know what you’re doing online are the VPN and whatever website you’re visiting.

What is your IP address?

  • Your location:
  • Device type:
  • Operating system:
  • Internet service provider:
  • Device:
  • Browser:

Your IP address tells websites a lot of information about you. That includes your location, what kind of device you're browsing the internet on, and your internet provider.

A VPN can hide your IP address. But if you're not using a VPN to hide your IP address, you'll see all the information that's shared with websites in our widget here. If you're creeped out by this, you're not alone. We are too.

That's why we recommend using a VPN to keep your information safe online. We've tested dozens of VPN services to find the best and most affordable ones, and you can see which VPNs made our list by clicking the link below.

What is encryption?

Encryption protocols convert all your information into a secret code so that only the person (or computer) with the key to the code can read it.

VPN software can also mask your IP address to give you even more privacy online. Your IP address is assigned to you by your internet provider and is a unique series of numbers that attaches to everything you do online.

That means every online place you visit knows exactly where you’re located thanks to your IP address. But a VPN hides your personal IP address. Instead, the IP address of the VPN server you connect to is what shows up online.

What is a VPN server?

Servers are essentially storehouses of data—every website in existence is stored on a server (or servers), and VPN servers are no exception.

VPN servers are set up to host users and connect them to the internet, but they’re also configured to encrypt and decrypt the data you send and receive from websites online. (The data needs to be decrypted so your computer or mobile device can read it.)

Another way VPN servers are unique is that they’re often located in different US cities—or even different countries, like the UK, Sweden, or Germany. By hosting servers in different cities and countries, a VPN protects you from ads targeting certain geographical regions.

What’s more, if a VPN connection can make it look like you’re surfing the web from a flat in England, it’s also possible for you to get around region restrictions on certain websites or apps.

Why is the number of servers so important?

More VPN servers means more value. When there are thousands of servers, as you’ll find with apps like ExpressVPN and CyberGhost, you can almost always find a reliable and secure connection that’s also fast enough for the purposes at hand.

What VPNs can’t do

VPNs may seem like a miracle when it comes to securing your online privacy. But there are a few things they can’t do, such as fully prevent companies from tracking your information or speed up your internet.

Cookies can still track your information online

Even if you use a VPN, there are still ways for ad companies to track your path across the internet even after you’ve left their sites.

One example is cookies. You can think of cookies like a sort of digital ID card that you show to websites you visit online. That ID card includes information about you, like what pages on a website you visit, what’s in your shopping cart when you shop online, and any personal information you’ve volunteered, like your name.

With ad companies, the cookies you create can contain information about multiple sites you’ve visited if those sites all contain ads that are managed by one advertising company.

There is good news, though. Cookies don’t give these ad companies or websites access to your computer or any personal information you haven’t purposefully shared online. And cookies can’t infect your computer or device with viruses or malware.

Also, you can easily delete cookies whenever you want.

VPNs won’t make your internet faster

You should also know that a VPN can’t speed up your internet. Actually, a VPN will probably do the opposite and slow down your connection. That’s because you need to connect to both your ISP’s server and the VPN server to encrypt your online identity and traffic.

And if you choose a server that’s located far away from your current location, it takes more time for your internet connection to travel there and back.

It’s likely you won’t notice much of a change if you’re on DSL, cable, or fiber internet. But this is the main reason we don’t recommend using a VPN with satellite internet—because your internet connection already needs to travel thousands of miles above the Earth and back.

Info Box icon
Using a VPN with satellite internet isn’t recommended
Because a VPN requires your internet to connect to an extra server, it can cause a satellite internet connection to slow down even more.

This is because of latency, or the time it takes for your data to travel from your computer to the VPN server, then to the satellite, and on to the website you’re visiting. We’ve got more information on how latency works in our satellite internet guide.

VPNs still have to follow laws in the countries they’re based in

You should also know that a VPN still has to follow laws and restrictions imposed by the country it’s based in. That potentially includes subpoenas and warrants, which means a VPN may have to comply if asked to hand over your internet history.

Is a VPN legal?

Short answer: yes, a VPN is legal to use… but not everywhere. VPNs are legal in the US, Canada, and most other Western countries.

But there are some countries where VPNs are totally banned—mostly countries with super-restrictive governments like Iraq, China, and Russia.

It’s also important to know that, while a VPN is legal, it doesn’t make illegal acts okay. This includes illegal activity like downloading copyrighted information, such as songs or movies, cyberstalking, and hacking computers or networks.

Also, using a VPN to get around geo-restrictions, like streaming a TV show that’s not available in the US, is still likely a violation of the streaming app’s Terms of Service and could result in your account getting banned.

Where are VPNs banned?

The legality of your VPN depends on where you are at any given moment, not where you’re from. You can’t hop on your VPN during a vacation to Shanghai just because it’s legal in your home country.

Here’s a current list of countries where VPNs are illegal2:

  • Belarus
  • China
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • North Korea
  • Oman
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • United Arab Emirates

We also mentioned that VPN providers have to follow the laws of the countries they’re located in.

For example, if your VPN provider is located in a country where the government could legally make VPNs hand over information, then your VPN could potentially hand over your personal information to a foreign government.

Even if you personally don’t live in the same country as your VPN provider, your info could still be compromised.

How to choose a VPN

There are lots of VPN providers to choose from out there, but deciding on one might be a little confusing. Which VPN will actually secure your internet connection and protect your data?

Here are a few quick things you should look for when choosing a VPN service:

Choose a secure protocol

VPN providers use lots of different methods, or protocols, to keep your data away from baddies. And some protocols are more secure than others.

You don’t need to know the technical details of how each protocol works (unless you really want to). You just need to know which ones are the most secure. Keep in mind, which protocols you can use will also depend on what type of device you have.

VPN protocol security levels
ProtocolSecurity level
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)Somewhat secure
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec (L2TP/IPsec)Secure
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)Extremely secure
Internet Key Exchange, version 2 (IKEv2)Extremely secure
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)Extremely secure
OpenVPNExtremely secure

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): PPTP is one of the oldest protocols around—Microsoft developed it in the 1990s. PPTP gives you a really fast connection and it works even on older devices. But its security isn’t the best—it can be cracked.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec (L2TP/IPsec): L2TP/IPsec is a little bit newer than PPTP, and it’s more secure, but it’s also slower. Some websites that use firewalls might also block your L2TP/IPsec connection, which is annoying.

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP): SSTP is super secure but works only on Windows devices, so you can’t use it on your Macbook or iPhone. On the bright side, SSTP doesn’t get blocked by firewalls as much as L2TP/IPsec.

Internet Key Exchange, Version 2 (IKEv2): You can use IKEv2 on basically any device (except Linux-based systems) and it’s very secure. It’s also faster than some other protocols like L2TP/IPsec.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): AES is recommended by governments and cybersecurity experts, including the NSA. It’s typically used with 256-bit keys, which means it has 2^256 potential key combinations. Yow!

Light Bulb icon
Just how many combinations is 2^256?
We hope you’re sitting down: 2^256 equals . . . (deep breath):
115,792,089,237,316,195,423,570,985,008,687,907,853,269,984,665,640,564, . . . (deep breath) . . .039,457,584,007,913,129,639,936

Uhh, yeah. That’s a huge number of combinations. So you can imagine how much time and money it would take for someone to crack AES security protocols. They’d be sillier than a yodeling pickle to try it.

OpenVPN: OpenVPN uses open source code, meaning that it’s constantly analyzed and updated by cybersecurity experts worldwide. Chances are that when a new bug is found, OpenVPN is updated first.

Look for a “no logs” policy

When you look for a VPN provider, it’s best to choose one that keeps “no logs.” That means the VPN provider doesn’t keep any records of who you are or your online activity.

If your VPN provider does keep logs, then there’s a record of you somewhere in the world. That means information about your online shopping habits, that one time you illegally torrented a movie, and even your dive into the dark rabbit hole that is yodeling veggies could potentially get out.

Paying for a VPN is almost always worth it

There are some free VPNs, but we recommend paying for one if you want to ensure your data is kept secure and your VPN provider isn’t selling it on the side. Seriously, this has been known to happen—and many well-known, free VPNs collect and store your data.

How much does a VPN cost?

VPNs are usually not very expensive—most cost around $10 per month. That means a VPN is likely still within your budget. And we’ve got a list of the best budget VPNs in case you’re interested.

Recap: What are the best VPN services?

The best VPN out there right now is ExpressVPN. But there are a ton of other options to choose from if you’re looking for a specific VPN feature or have a unique need like location, speed, gaming, or whatever.

Best VPN services of 2021:

A VPN (virtual private network) creates a secure connection when you use the internet and protects you from hackers, search engines, and anyone else you don’t want watching you online.

We recommend using a VPN any time you’re online, but especially if you use public Wi-Fi at the airport, Starbucks, library, or elsewhere. VPNs stand between you and the websites you visit so your data isn’t as vulnerable to leaks and theft. And if you’re at home, it’s a good idea to install your VPN service directly on your router so it protects your entire private network.

Do you use a VPN? Do you think it’s worth it for online privacy? Let us know in the comments!

Additional contributors

Catherine McNally, Mindy Woodall, Chyelle Dvorak

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